Monday, June 06, 2011

Academic excommunication and what Michel Foucault can do about it

The June issue of 'Christianity Today' magazine has generated a lot of coverage over the internet due to Richard N. Ostling's article on the historical Adam and Eve.

There are many matters covered in Ostling's article, and I want to focus only on one in this post that has to do with a practice that seems to me like an academic excommunication.

In the article, Ostling listed Christian teachers who unexpectedly and unfortunately invited trouble on themselves for (a) being open to the possibility that God creates through the macro-evolutionary process, or (b) being open to the possibility that Adam and Eve are not as historical as the event that I brushed my teeth this morning, or (a) + (b).

Here are the mentioned few:

Daniel C. Harlow and John R. Schneider:
"As a result of their writings [published in September 2010 journal 'Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith'], a personnel panel [at their working institution, Calvin College] has been investigating whether they violated the doctrinal standards that the college's sponsoring Christian Reformed Church requires of faculty. (The investigation follows procedures that were established when Calvin astrophysicist Howard J. Van Till stirred an earlier ruckus over creation—though not Adam and Eve—with his 1986 tome The Fourth Day.) Harlow and Schneider could face discipline from the board of trustees, and revived denominational debate about evolution seems inevitable."

Peter Enns:
"Peter Enns, whose interpretation of the Old Testament led to suspension and eventual departure from Westminster Theological Seminary in 2008 (though the Adam-and-Eve question was not at issue in that case). To Enns, a literal Adam as a special creation without evolutionary forebears is "at odds with everything else we know about the past from the natural sciences and cultural remains." As he reads the early chapters of Genesis, he says, "The Bible itself invites a symbolic reading by using cosmic battle imagery and by drawing parallels between Adam and Israel.""

Tremper Longman III:
In a video interview done with BioLogos, Longman III said that, "I have not resolved this issue in my own mind except to say that there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage [Gen. 1-3] so filled with obvious figurative description." On Paul's reference to Adam as historical person, Longman III remarked that, "it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one."

"After BioLogos promoted Longman's views in a video last year, Reformed Theological Seminary ended Longman's role as an adjunct faculty member."

Bruce Waltke
"The administration [at Reformed Theological Seminary] abruptly accepted his offer of resignation due to a BioLogos video in which Waltke remarked that "if the data is overwhelming in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult. Waltke began teaching at Knox Theological Seminary this year."

The purging of academic staffs, whose allegiance to the establishment's creed is suspect, does not happen only at seminary or theological college. This same pattern of inquisition and excommunication take place in non-Church-related institution as well:

In September 2008, Michael Reiss had to resign from his post as the Director of Education at Britain's most prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society, for saying in public that teachers shouldn't dismiss students' question on creationism. (Other report here and here.)

In August 2010, James Enstrom, a research professor at University of California Los Angeles, was reported to be "denied appointment" because his works "ran against conventional wisdom" and "not aligned with the department’s mission."

In Ortober 2010, Gavriel Avital was fired "from his position as chief scientist in Israel's ministry of education due to his denial of evolution and global warming." (Other reports here and here.)

In January 2011, University of Kentucky paid $125,000 to astronomer Martin Gaskell for him to drop civil action against the university for discriminating his job application not based on his outstanding curriculum vitae but his religious belief. (Other report here.)

From this we observed that the purging of teaching staffs, whose allegiance to the establishment's creed is suspect, be it religious or non-religious, is common in the academia. There is no difference whether it is a Christian organization or not.

This reveals that each community has its own norm of tradition and practices. When members of the community is suspected to have breached the tradition, he/she is seen a heretic. Not a different person who is really the strange Other, who can never be the same as us, yet created no lesser in degree of quality than the rest of us.

These institutions that participate in academic excommunication may jeer at the Spanish Inquisition or the suicide bombers who are religiously motivated. But I wonder if the jeer is actually a confession that we don't know what to do with strangeness?

Thus the best way is not to deal with it, not to even face it. Hence need to get rid of it. Terminate it.

Then we go on wondering why the 21st century global civilization still facing the threat of fanaticism, fundamentalism, extremism, etc. Just as academic excommunication is a given, so are the problems facing the current world.

Michel Foucault has observed this givenness decades ago and drew the connection between epistemology (in terms of the notion of truth) and politics (relation between agencies):

"Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true."

Then Foucault went on to highlight a constructive way of how to deal with this problem without going into academic excommunication:

"The essential political problem for the intellectual is not to criticise the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that his own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology, but that of ascertaining the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth. The problem is not changing people's consciousness---or what's in their heads---but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth."
(Michel Foucault, 'Truth and Power', in From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Cahoone [UK: Blackwell, Second Edition, 2003], p. 252-253.)

A better way to deal with the strange Other is not to excommunicate them. According to Foucault, what we can do is to draft the strange Other into the political-economic relation with us to produce not a new truth, but a new approach to truth.

I think this would make redundant academic excommunication, which in my conviction is not really a good representation of the academia (be it religious or not) as the center of intelligible living.

Besides, this sort of excommunication exists not only in the academia. If we look hard enough, it is found also in the Churches, companies, societies, and families.


Martin Yee said...

Great post Sze Zeng. Learn loads from you everytime. Btw do you know how those who do not believe in a literal historic Adam and Eve will handle the fact that Jesus and St.Paul viewed and discussed Adam and Eve as literal historic persons.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

I'm not sure how they handle that. I think most of them simply acknowledge that we can't establish facts with the current work, as how Longman said it. :)

reasonable said...

Hi Martin, did St Jesus & St Paul view Adam & Eve as historical persons?

1. They could have still spoken/written as they did even if they did not view Adam & Eve as historical persons. And these could be elaborated in different ways. One is accommodation: they accommodate to the level of knowledge of their contemporaries. It is like a mother telling her little 5 year old kid: Santa Claus is not going to be happy if you do not sleep early. Another is to take a unhistorical person to teach a point without having to point out that the person is unhistorical. For example, if it is true that Jesus viewed Jonah as unhistorical story, then Jesus' making use of Jonah to teach about the resurrection of the Son of Man would be an example. Or, someone can say "Just as the Monkey God served his monk-master Tang Sang Zhang faithfully throughout their jorney to the West, Peter also served his CEO Swatzer faithfully over 30 years building this company".

2. It is not impossible for Adam & Eve to be truly unhistorical while Paul and Jesus mistakening them to be historical. (i.e. it is possible for Jesus & Paul to be wrong). Firstly, Paul is not a perfect human being with perfect knowledge, so he could be mistaken, and "inspiration of the scriptures" need not mean that everything Paul wrote cannot contains mistakes. Inspiration itself can be consitent with the presence of mistakes in grammars/facts/opinions. Jesus' incarnation could well have taken up the limitation in knowledge (e.g. while he was on earth, he was not aware that he was a member of the Trinity - if you follow N. T. Wright's writings, Jesus mentioned he was not aware when will the Apocalypse Day and that only God knows. Jesus emptied (an idea emphasized in kenotic theology) a number of divine attributes while being a human being.